“Chronic pain affects an estimated 100 million Americans or one-third of the U.S. population,” according to a position paper by the Annals of Internal Medicine. That same paper indicates that nearly 25% of the population are experiencing moderate to severe chronic pain that’s diminishing their quality of life and limiting their activities.
Despite the alternatives available for opioids, there’s an increasing number of Americans turning to them for managing their chronic pain long-term. According to authors of Pain Management and the Opioid Epidemic: Balancing Societal and Individual Benefits and Risks of Prescription Opioid Use, “Not since the HIV/AIDS epidemic has the United States faced as devastating and lethal a health problem as the current crisis of opioid misuse and overdose and opioid use disorder (OUD).”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports, “Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids.” Americans are becoming addicted to a variety of opioids, including
- Prescription pain relievers
- Other synthetic opioids
As a result, opioid addiction is causing an economic, social, and public health crisis. This epidemic has even resulted in newborns experiencing withdrawal symptoms as a result of opioid misuse while the mother was pregnant.
Why it’s a problem
During the late 1990s, the medical community received reassurance from pharmaceutical companies about opioid pain relievers being addictive. As a result, healthcare providers began over-prescribing them .
Before there was clarification regarding the fact that these medications, in fact, are incredibly addictive, that increase in prescriptions had already lead to widespread misuse of prescription and non-prescription opioids. It wasn’t until 2017 that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency for addressing the opioid crisis throughout the country.
Health risks with opioids
Long-term risk factors for using opioids include coma, paralysis, and death. A study by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine indicates that even when opioids are in use short-term, there are still health risks. Such risks and side-effects include:
- Respiratory depression (slowed breathing)
Other side effects and risk factors include anxiety, confusion, depression, itchiness, and sleepiness. You may also experience hot flashes, irregular menstrual cycles, a weakened immune system, pain, and even memory issues.
Not all prescription opioids result in the same side-effects. For example, those who received prescriptions for morphine or oxycodone experienced dizziness, nausea, and vomiting more often. Constipation seems to be the most significant issue, mainly when patients receive a high dose of opioid medication.
Dr. Raoul Doust, a physician at Hospital du Sacre-Coeur de Montreal, states, “It was surprising to find that 38% of patients had constipation while consuming only a (relatively low dose of opioids) during the first two weeks,” in an email to Reuters Health.
That doesn’t mean patients who are using opioids for long-term chronic pain relief should discontinue usage abruptly. A safety announcement issued by the FDA during April 2019 states, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received reports of serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued, or the dose rapidly decreased.”
Why you should avoid them
Under no circumstance should opioids be used during pregnancy. During early pregnancy, usage could cause babies to experience belly, brain, heart, and spine issues. Later in pregnancies, babies could be addicted when they’re born. Those addicted babies might be prone to having a low birth weight and seizures.
You should avoid opioids if you’re suffering from a long-term pain condition. Alfred Clavel Jr., MD, states that ” many people don’t know is that if you use opioid pills for 4 or more weeks, it makes you more sensitive to pain and that makes the pain worse.” The main reason is that, when opioids block pain, our bodies naturally react by trying to reactivate your pain signal by increasing the number of receptors. So, when medication is discontinued, patients experience an increase in their pain for several days.
Getting past your addiction if you have formed one
It’s not easy overcoming opioid withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, many of the drugs available to help with withdrawal are also addictive. Conventional opioid withdrawal treatments include using the following medications:
- Buprenorphine: This might reduce the length of the detox and is sometimes in use for long-term maintenance.
- Clonidine: reduces anxiety, agitation, cramping, muscle aches, and runny nose.
- Methadone: helps with detox with relieving withdrawal symptoms and is sometimes used for long-term maintenance.
- Naltrexone: helps prevent relapses from occurring.
Managing pain, no matter if it’s long-term or acute, doesn’t have to involve opioids. Instead of turning to these medications, physicians should look for safer alternatives. While there are some natural home remedies that you can try for managing pain, they might not have the same effect as a prescription or alternative pain relief.
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